One Tubabu’s Thoughts on the Coup in Mali

by phil on March 25, 2012

Niger River sunset

By now you know that a group of relatively young, low-ranking soldiers has taken control of Mali’s Presidential Palace and the state TV station ORTM. They also have control of the airport, which they have closed along with the land borders. They say that they are also in control of the military, the city of Bamako and the country for that matter, but the extent of their control and support is decidedly unclear.

The whereabouts of Mali’s President, Amadou Toumani Toure (ATT), are unknown. Amadou Sanogo, a 39-year-old captain in the Malian army, and now president of the newly created National Committee for the Redressment of Democracy and the State (CNRDR), has become the face of Mali’s government, whatever that may mean. The stated reason for the coup? To rid Mali of ATT’s incompetent leadership and to re-establish peace and Mali’s territorial integrity. Sanogo has since said that he also plans to reform the military and the education system. Elections? Yes, they will happen, he says, but there is no timetable. Elections were originally scheduled for the end of April and ATT was due to step down in June.

I arrived back in Bamako on Wednesday. Originally planning on taking the bus, I took the plane when I found a reasonable ticket through Air Mali. Had I taken the bus, I likely would have been stranded at the dougoudonka border crossing. Soldiers shut down the airport several hours after my plane landed.

Some would call this bad timing, but the city has been mostly calm since I arrived. There were a few days of surround sound gunfire (these were shots fired in the air) and looting took place in certain neighborhoods. Several people were killed and a few dozen injured by stray (falling?) bullets and as awful as that is, many people, including me, are thankful that there hasn’t been actual violent confrontation between soldier and civilian or between soldier and soldier. Yesterday, the grand marché was operating more or less normally and the mood among traders and vendors was mostly positive.

But let me tell you why I am upset and concerned.

First, I am not Malian. I am also not a scholar of Malian or Sahelian politics. That said, I have spent a significant amount of time in this country over the past two years. I have friends here, including my girlfriend of the past year and a half, and I have been fortunate to have learned many lessons from Mali and Malidenw.

Mali’s democracy and institutions may have been imperfect — corrupt and heavily flawed, even — but this coup is very unfortunate. This coup is like blowing up a sports team that, while not close to making the playoffs, had some promising foundational pieces in place. As a Cleveland Indians fan, I’ve experienced the misery of this phenomenon several times throughout my life (every couple of years since the 90’s it seems). The team’s payroll becomes too bloated for the cheap Dolan ownership and there is not enough talent to get over the hump, so the team is dismantled with the hope of rebuilding in a better direction.

In the case of Mali, the team has been dismantled and everything has been pinned on an unknown and untested draft pick: Captain Amadou Sanogo.

In 1991, a younger Amadou Toumani Toure led a coup against the military dictatorship of Moussa Traore, who had effectively run a police state in Mali for several decades. Soon after, ATT ceded power to the democratic process and he stepped away from Malian politics until 2002 when he was elected president.

By all accounts, there was good reason for the ATT-led coup in ’91. Under the Moussa Traore government, a dissenting journalist could be (and often was) jailed and tortured.

Under ATT’s government, Mali was number one in Africa for press freedom and in the Reporters Without Borders 2011 report, they were actually ranked higher than many western countries, including former colonial power France (see RWB 2011 report here).

But that government has now been replaced by the CNRDR. The constitution has been suspended along with all of Mali’s government institutions. Many ministers and even some presidential candidates have been arrested and indefinitely detained. Despite rumors and conspiracy theories that bigger players (and perhaps other countries) are involved, right now, it appears that one man, Captain Amadou Sanogo, is pulling the strings. Captain Amadou Sanogo, who is using increasingly egotistical language (see this interview with AP reporter Martin Vogl) in his interviews and broadcasts.

Let’s forget for a moment that elections were due to happen in a month and let’s even allow for the possibility that Sanogo is a good dude who is well-intentioned and competent. Political power can do some strange things to people (see: world history). While Sanogo and co. have presided over several consecutive days of calm — having stopped their soldiers from looting and firing rounds into the air — what will they do in the week to come? How will Sanogo handle the intense diplomatic and possibly physical pressure from ECOWAS, the UN, the AU, the US etc.? How will he handle criticism from journals and newspapers? How will he handle the various interest groups that have a stake in Mali? How will he handle a proposed peace march tomorrow?

ATT was struggling with, and arguably mishandling, the MNLA rebellion. His government was undoubtedly corrupt in certain parts. And there is a chance that elections would have been delayed because of the northern conflict. But ATT was no authoritarian. He was committed to Malian democracy and civil society. In fact, one of the biggest criticisms levelled against ATT is that he too often tried governing by consensus.

Institutions exist as a safeguard against our weaker tendencies. When those institutions are broken, they need to be replaced. I don’t think Mali was at that point, but even if it was, the change, if change is what it actually is, should not have come by the barrel of someone’s gun. Now those institutions are gone and one man is in charge.

My hope right now is that a conflict does not evolve out of this. The north is already a mess, with MNLA and Ansar Dine, an Islamist group, both vying for towns, and Mali’s military breaking down as a result of the coup. At the same time, many Malians are in the thick of a food crisis, a result of last year’s horrendously unproductive rainy season. Malians deserve better than this.

For now, everyone is waiting for what’s next. No one really knows.

Before I go, I want to say one more thing. You may look at this whole situation – the coup, the food crisis, the rebellion(s) in the north – and think “oh, there goes Africa again.” But as always, there is more to this story. If you are paying attention to Mali for the first time, take a moment to get to know this country’s beautiful culture – it transcends all of the headlines you will read.

recommended reading on the coup

Mali’s Coup – First Thoughts

Mali ministers held by junta go on hunger strike

Bamako returning to normal, Mali’s north threatened

Amadou Sanogo: Power is his middle name

Audio of interview with Amadou Sanogo from AP reporter Martin Vogl

I am tweeting updates from bamako at @philinthe_. @tommymiles has put together a great list of folks to follow on the situation here and he is very much worth a follow himself.

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